America in the 1850s

The Emergence of John Brown

Who was Preston Brooks and what did he do?

Preston Brooks (1819–1857) was a twenty-eight-year-old member of the U.S. House of Representatives and a nephew of Senator Butler. On the afternoon of May 22, 1856, Preston Brooks strolled into the Senate chamber and spied Charles Sumner at his desk, presumably writing the text of his next speech. Official business was over for the day, and only two dozen persons were in the chamber; they were mostly over to the left, about thirty feet away from where the action was about to begin.

Brooks approached Sumner and attempted to speak, but the New England man merely looked up and told him to go away (very likely, he did not realize Brooks was Butler’s kinsman). Brooks then patiently explained that he was a Southern gentleman, and where he came from ad hominem attacks were not allowed to go unpunished. Thoroughly irritated, Sumner repeated his demand to go away. That was the moment when Brooks raised his cane and began beating Sumner on the head.


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